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Bible Commentaries
Romans 16

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-27

Chapter 32


Romans 16:1-27

ONCE more, with a reverent license of thought, we may imagine ourselves to be watching in detail the scene in the house of Gaius. Hour upon hour has passed over Paul and his scribe as the wonderful Message has developed itself, at once and everywhere the word of man and the Word of God. They began at morning, and the themes of sin, and righteousness, and glory, of the present and the future of Israel, of the duties of the Christian life, of the special problems of the Roman Mission, have carried the hours along to noon, to afternoon. Now, to the watcher from the westward lattice,

"Slow sinks, more lovely ere his race be run, Along Morea’s hills the setting sun; Not, as in northern climes, obscurely bright, But one unclouded blaze of living light."

The Apostle, pacing the chamber, as men are wont to do when they use the pens of others, is aware that his message is at an end, as to doctrine and counsel. But before he bids his willing and wondering secretary rest from his labours, he has to discharge his own heart of the personal thoughts and affections which have lain ready in it all the while, and which his last words about his coming visit to the City have brought up in all their life and warmth. And now Paul and Tertius are no longer alone; other brethren have found their way to the chamber-Timotheus, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater; Gaius himself; Quartus; and no less a neighbour than Erastus, Treasurer of Corinth. A page of personal messages is yet to be dictated, from St. Paul, and from his friends.

Now first he must not forget the pious woman who is-so we surely may assume-to take charge of this inestimable packet, and to deliver it at Rome. We know nothing of Phoebe but from this brief mention. We cannot perhaps be formally certain that she is here described as a female Church official, a "deaconess" in a sense of that word familiar in later developments of Church order-a woman set apart by the laying on of hands, appointed to enquire into and relieve temporal distress, and to be the teacher of female enquirers in the mission. But there is at least a great likelihood that something like this was her position; for she was not merely an active Christian, she was "a ministrant of the Church." And she was certainly, as a person, worthy of reliance and of loving commendatory praise, now that some cause-absolutely unknown to us; perhaps nothing more unusual than a change of residence, obliged by private circumstances - took her from Achaia to Italy. She had been a devoted and it would seem particularly a brave friend of converts in trouble, and of St. Paul himself. Perhaps in the course of her visits to the desolate she had fought difficult battles of protest, where she found harshness and oppressions. Perhaps she had pleaded the forgotten cause of the poor, with a woman’s courage, before some neglectful richer "brother."

Then Rome itself, as he sees Phoebe reaching it, rises-as yet only in fancy; it was still unknown to him-upon his mind. And there, moving up and down in that strange and almost awful world, he sees one by one the members of a large group of his personal Christian friends, and his beloved Aquila and Prisca are most visible of all. These must be individually saluted.

What the nature of these friendships was we know in some instances, for we are told here. But why the persons were at Rome, in the place which Paul himself had never reached, we do not know, nor ever shall. Many students of the Epistle, it is well known, find a serious difficulty in this list of friends so placed-the persons so familiar, the place so strange; and they would have us took on this sixteenth chapter as a fragment from some other Letter, pieced in here by mistake; or what not. But no ancient copy of the Epistle gives us, by its condition, any real ground for such conjectures. And all that we have to do to realise possibilities in the actual features of the case, is to assume that many at least of this large Roman group, as surely Aquila and Prisca, had recently migrated from the Levant to Roman; a migration as common and almost as easy then as is the modern influx of foreign denizens to London.

Bishop Lightfoot, in an Excursus in his edition of the Philippian Epistle, has given us reason to think that not a few of the "Romans" named here by St. Paul were members of that "Household of Caesar" of which in later days he speaks to the Philippians {Philippians 4:22} as containing its "saints," saints who send special greetings to the Macedonian brethren. The Domus Caesaris included "the whole of the Imperial household, the meanest slaves, as well as the most powerful courtiers"; "all persons in the Emperor’s service, whether slaves or free men, in Italy and even in the provinces." The literature of sepulchral inscriptions at Rome is peculiarly rich in allusions to members of "the Household." And it is from this quarter, particularly from discoveries in it made early in the last century, that Lightfoot gets good reasons for thinking that in Philippians 4:22 we may, quite possibly, be reading a greeting from Rome sent by the very persons (speaking roundly) who are here greeted in the Epistle to Rome. A place of burial on the Appian Way, devoted to the ashes of Imperial freedmen and slaves, and other similar receptacles, all to be dated with practical certainty about the middle period of the first century, yield the following names: Amplias, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Rufus, Hermes, Hermas, Philologus, Julius, Nereis; a name which might have denoted the sister (see Romans 16:15) of a man Nereus.

Of course such facts must be used with due reserve in inference. But they make it abundantly clear that, in Lightfoot’s words, "the names and allusions at the close of the Roman Epistle are in keeping with the circumstances of the metropolis in St. Paul’s day." They help us to a perfectly truth like theory. We have only to suppose that among St. Paul’s converts and friends in Asia and Eastern Europe many either belonged already to the ubiquitous "Household," or entered it after conversion, as purchased slaves or otherwise; and that some time before our Epistle was written there was a large draft from the provincial to the metropolitan department; and that thus, when St. Paul thought of personal Christian friends at Rome, he would happen to think, mainly, of "saints of Caesar’s Household." Such a theory would also, by the way, help to explain the emphasis with which just these "saints" sent their greeting, later, to Philippi. Many of them might have lived in Macedonia, and particularly in the colonia of Philippi, before the time of their supposed transference to Rome.

We may add, from Lightfoot’s discussion, a word about "the households," or "people"-of Aristobulus and Narcissus-mentioned in the greetings before us. It seems at least likely that the Aristobulus of the Epistle was a grandson of Herod the Great, and brother of Agrippa of Judea; a prince who lived and died at Rome. At his death it would be no improbable thing that his "household" should pass by legacy to the Emperor, while they would still, as a sort of clan, keep their old master’s name. Aristobulus’ servants, probably many of them Jews (Herodion, St. Paul’s kinsman, may have been a retainer of this Herod), would thus now be a part of "the Household of Caesar," and the Christians among them would be a group of "the Household saints." As to the Narcissus of the Epistle, he may well have been the all-powerful freedman of Claudius, put to death early in Nero’s time. On his death, his great familia would become, by confiscation, part of "the Household"; and its Christian members would be thought of by St. Paul as among "the Household saints."

Thus it is at least possible that the holy lives which here pass in such rapid file before us were lived not only in Rome, but in a connection more or less close with the service and business of the Court of Nero. So freely does grace make light of circumstance.

Now it is time to come from our preliminaries to the text.

But-the word may mark the movement of thought from his own delay in reaching them to Phoebe’s immediate coming-I commend to you Phoebe, our sister (this Christian woman bore, without change, and without reproach, the name of the Moon Goddess of the Greeks), being a ministrant of the Church which is in Cenchreae, the Aegaean port of Corinth; that you may welcome her, in the Lord, as a fellow member of His Body, in a way worthy of the saints, with all the respect and the affection of the Gospel, and that you may stand by her in any matter in which she may need you, stranger as she will be at Rome. For she on her part has proved a stand by (almost a champion, one who stands up for others) of many, aye, and of me among them.

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my coworkers in Christ Jesus; the friends who for my life’s sake submitted their own throat to the knife (it was at some stern crisis otherwise utterly unknown to us, but well known in heaven); to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the Churches of the Nations; for they saved the man whom the Lord consecrated to the service of the Gentile world. And the Church at their house greet with them; that is, the Christians of their neighbourhood, who used Aquila’s great room as their house of prayer; the embryo of our parish or district Church. This provision of a place of worship was an old usage of this holy pair, whom St. Paul’s almost reverent affection presents to us in such a living individuality. They had gathered "a domestic Church" at Corinth, not many months before. {1 Corinthians 16:19} And earlier still, at Ephesus, {Acts 18:26} they wielded such a Christian influence that they must have been a central point of influence and gathering there also. In Prisca, or Priscilla, as it has been remarked, we have "an example of what a married woman may do, for the general service of the Church, in conjunction with home duties, just as Phoebe is the type of the unmarried servant of the Church, or deaconess."

Greet Epaenetus, my beloved, who is the first fruits of Asia, that is of the Ephesian Province, unto Christ; doubtless one who "owed his soul" to St. Paul in that three years’ missionary pastorate at Ephesus, and who was now bound to him by the indescribable tie which makes the converter and converted one.

Greet Mary-a Jewess probably, Miriam or Maria-for she toiled hard for you; when and how we cannot know.

Greet Andronicus and Junias, funianus, my kinsmen, and my fellow captives in Christ’s war; a loving and mindful reference to the human relationships which so freely, but not lightly, he had sacrificed for Christ, and to some persecution battle (was it at Philippi?) when these good men had shared his prison; men who are distinguished among the apostles; either as being themselves, in a secondary sense, devoted "apostles," Christ’s missionary delegates, though not of the Apostolate proper, or as being honoured above the common, for their toll and their character, by the Apostolic Brotherhood; who also before me came to be, as they are, in Christ. Not improbably these two early converts helped to "goad" {Acts 26:14} the conscience of their still persecuting Kinsman, and to prepare the way of Christ in his heart.

Greet Amplias, Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord; surely a personal convert of his own.

Greet Urbanus, my coworker in Christ, and Stachys-another masculine name-my beloved.

Greet Apelles, that tested man in Christ; the Lord knows, not we, the tests he stood.

Greet those who belong to Aristobulus’ people.

Greet Herodion, my kinsman.

Greet those who belong to Narcissus’ people; those who are in the Lord.

Greet Tryphaena and Tryphosa (almost certainly, by the type of their names, female slaves), who toil in the Lord, perhaps as "servants of the Church," so far as earthly service would allow them.

Greet Persis, the beloved woman (with faultless delicacy he does not here say "my beloved," as he had said of the Christian men mentioned just above), for she toiled hard in the Lord; perhaps at some time when St. Paul had watched her in a former and more Eastern home.

Greet Rufus-just possibly the Rufus of Mark 15:21, brother of Alexander, and son of Cross-carrying Simon; the family was evidently known to St. Mark, and we have good cause to think that St. Mark wrote primarily for Roman readers-Rufus, the chosen man in the Lord, a saint of the elite; and his mother-and mine! This nameless woman had done a mother’s part, somehow and somewhere, to the motherless Missionary, and her lovingkindness stands recorded now

"In either Book of Life, here and above."

Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, Hermes, and the brethren who are with them; dwellers perhaps in some isolated and distant quarter of Rome, a little Church by themselves.

Greet Philologus and Julia, Nereus and his sister, and all the saints who are with them, in their assembly.

Greet one another with a sacred kiss; the Oriental pledge of friendship, and of respect. All the Churches of Christ greet you; Corinth, Cenchreae, "with all the saints in the whole of Achaia". {2 Corinthians 1:1}

The roll of names is over, with its music, that subtle characteristic of such recitations of human personalities, and with its moving charm for the heart due almost equally to our glimpses of information about one here and one there and to our total ignorance about others; an ignorance of everything about them but that they were at Rome, and that they were in Christ. We seem, by an effort of imagination, to see, as through a bright cloud, the faces of the company, and to catch the far-off voices; but the dream "dissolves in wrecks"; we do not know them, we do not know their distant world, But we do know Him in whom they were, and are; and that they have been "with Him, which is far better," for now so long a time of rest and glory. Some no doubt by deaths of terror and wonder, by the fire, by the horrible wild beasts, "departed to be with Him"; some went, perhaps, with a dismissal as gentle as love and stillness could make it. But however, they were the Lord’s; they are with the Lord. And we, in Him,

"Are tending upward too, As fast as time can move."

So we watch this unknown yet well-beloved company, with a sense of fellowship and expectation impossible out of Christ. This page is no mere relic of the past; it is a list of friendships to be made hereafter, and to be possessed forever, in the endless life where personality indeed shall be eternal, but where also the union of personalities, in Christ, shall be beyond our utmost present thought.

But the Apostle cannot close with these messages of love. He remembers another and anxious need, a serious spiritual peril in the Roman community. He has not even alluded to it before, but it must be handled, however briefly, now:

But I appeal to you, brethren, to watch the persons who make the divisions and the stumbling blocks you know of, alien to the teaching which you learnt (there is an emphasis on "you," as if to difference the true-hearted converts from these troublers); -and do turn away from them; go, and keep, out of their way; wise counsel for a peaceable but effectual resistance. For such people are not bondservants of our Lord Jesus Christ, but they are bondservants of their own belly. They talk much of a mystic freedom; and free indeed they are from the accepted dominion of the Redeemer-but all the more they are enslaved to themselves; and by their pious language and their specious pleas they quite beguile the hearts of the simple, the unsuspicious. And they may perhaps have special hopes of beguiling you, because of your well-known readiness to submit, with the submission of faith, to sublime truths; a noble character, but calling inevitably for the safeguards of intelligent caution: For your obedience, "the obedience of faith," shown when the Gospel reached you, was carried by report to all men, and so to these beguilers, who hope now to entice your faith astray. As regards you, therefore, looking only at your personal condition, I rejoice. Only I wish you to be wise as to what is good, but uncontaminated (by defiling knowledge) as to what is evil. He would not have their holy readiness to believe distorted into an unhallowed and falsely tolerant curiosity. He would have their faith not only submissive but spiritually intelligent; then they would be alive to the risks of a counterfeited and illusory "Gospel." They would feel, as with an educated Christian instinct, where decisively to hold back, where to refuse attention to unwholesome teaching. But the God of our peace will crush Satan down beneath your feet speedily. This spiritual mischief, writhing itself, like the serpent of Paradise, into your happy precincts, is nothing less than a stratagem of the great Enemy’s own; a movement of his mysterious personal antagonism to your Lord, and to you His people. But the Enemy’s Conqueror, working in you, will make the struggle short and decisive. Meet the inroad in the name of Him who has made peace for you, and works peace in you, and it will soon be over. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. be (or may we not render is?) with you.

What precisely was the mischief, who precisely were the dangerous teachers, spoken of here so abruptly and so urgently by St. Paul? It is easier to ask the question than to answer it. Some expositors have sought a solution in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters, and have found in an extreme school of theoretical "liberty" these men of "pious language and specious pleas." But to us this seems impossible. Almost explicitly, in those chapters, he identifies himself in principle with "the capable"; certainly there is not a whisper of horror as regards their principle, and nothing but a friendly while unreserved reproof for the uncharity of their practice. Here he has in his mind men whose purposes and whose teachings are nothing but evil; who are to be-not indeed persecuted but-avoided; not met in conference, but solemnly refused a further hearing. In our view, the case was one of embryo Gnosticism. The Romans, so we take it, were troubled by teachers who used the language of Christianity, saying much of "Redemption," and of "Emancipation," and something of "Christ," and of "the Spirit"; but all the while they meant a thing totally different from the Gospel of the Cross. They meant by redemption and freedom, the liberation of spirit from matter. They meant by Christ and the Spirit, mere links in a chain of phantom beings, supposed to span the gulf between the Absolute Unknowable Existence and the finite World. And their morality too often tended to the tenet that as matter was hopelessly evil, and spirit the unfortunate prisoner in matter, the material body had nothing to do with its unwilling, and pure, Inhabitant: let the body go its own evil way, and work out its base desires.

Our sketch is taken from developed Gnosticism, such as it is known to have been a generation or two later than St. Paul. But it is more than likely that such errors were present, in essence, all through the Apostolic age. And it is easy to see how they could from the first disguise themselves in the special terminology of the Gospel of liberty and of the Spirit.

Such things may look to us, after eighteen hundred years, only like fossils of the old rocks. They are indeed fossil specimens-but of existing species. The atmosphere of the Christian world is still infected, from time to time-perhaps more now than a few generations ago, whatever that fact may mean-with unwholesome subtleties, in which the purest forms of truth are indescribably manipulated into the deadliest related error; a mischief sure to betray itself, however, (where the man tempted to parley with it is at once wakeful and humble,) by some fatal flaw of pride, or of untruthfulness, or of an uncleanness however subtle. And for the believer so tempted, under common circumstances, there is still, as of old, no counsel more weighty than St. Paul’s counsel here. If he would deal with such snares in the right way, he must "turn away from them." He must turn away to the Christ of history. He must occupy himself anew with the primeval Gospel of pardon, holiness, and heaven.

Is the letter to be closed here at last? Not quite yet; not until one and then another of the gathered circle has committed his greetings to it. And first comes up the dear Timotheus, the man nearest of all to the strong heart of the Apostle. We seem to see him alive before us, so much has St. Paul, in one Epistle and another, but above all in his dying letter to Timotheus himself, contributed to a portrait. He is many years younger than his leader and Christian Father. His face, full of thought, feeling, and devotion, is rather earnest than strong. But it has the strength of patience, and of absolute sincerity, and of rest in Christ. Timotheus repays the affection of Paul with unwavering fidelity. And he will be true to the end to his Lord and Redeemer, through whatever tears and agonies of sensibility. Then Lucius will speak, perhaps the Cyrenian of Antioch; {Acts 13:1} and Jason, perhaps the convert of Thessalonica; {Acts 17:5} and Sosipater, perhaps the Berean Sopater of Acts 20:4; three blood relations of the Apostle, who was not left utterly alone of human affinities, though he had laid them all at his Master’s feet. Then the faithful Tertius claims the well-earned privilege of writing one sentence for himself. And Gaius modestly requests his salutation, and Erastus, the man of civic dignity and large affairs. He has found no discord between the tenure of a great secular office and the life of Christ; but today he is just a brother with brethren, named side by side with the Quartus whose only title is that beautiful one, "the brother," "our fellow in the family of God." So the gathered friends speak each in his turn to the Christians of the City; we listen as the names are given:

There greets you Timotheus my fellow worker, and Lucius, and Jason, and Sosipatrus, my kinsmen.

There greets you I, Tertius, who wrote the Epistle in the Lord; he had been simply Paul’s conscious pen, but also he had willingly drawn the strokes as being one with Christ, and as working in His cause.

There greets you Gaius, host of me and of the whole Church; universal welcomer to his door of all who love his beloved Lord, and now particularly of all at Corinth who need his Lord’s Apostle.

There greets you Erastus, the Treasurer of the City, and Quartus ("Kouartos"), the brother.

Here, as we seem to discern the scene, there is indeed a pause, and what might look like an end. Tertius lays down the pen. The circle of friends breaks up, and Paul is left alone-alone with his unseen Lord, and with that long, silent Letter; his own, yet not his own. He takes it in his hands, to read, to ponder, to believe, to call up again the Roman converts, so dear, so far away, and to commit them again for faith, and for life, to Christ and to His Father. He sees them beset by the encircling masses of pagan idolatry and vice, and by the embittered Judaism which meets them at every turn. He sees them hindered by their own mutual prejudices and mistakes; for they are sinners still. Lastly, he sees them approached by this serpentine delusion of an unhallowed mysticism, which would substitute the thought of matter for that of sin, and reverie for faith, and an unknowable Somewhat, inaccessible to the finite, for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And then he sees this astonishing Gospel, whose glorious outline and argument he has been caused to draw, as it was never drawn before, on those papyrus pages; the truth of God, not of man; veiled so long, promised so long, known at last; the Gospel which displays the sinner’s peace, the believer’s life, the radiant boundless future of the saints, and, in all and above all, the eternal love of the Father and the Son.

In this Gospel, "his Gospel," he sees manifested afresh his God. And he adores Him afresh, and commits to Him afresh these dear ones of the Roman Mission.

He must give them one word more, to express his overrunning heart. He must speak to them of Him who is Almighty for them against the complex might of evil. He must speak of that Gospel in whose lines the almighty grade will run. It is the Gospel of Paul, but also and first the "proclamation made by Jesus Christ" of Himself as our Salvation. It is the Secret "hushed" throughout the long aeons of the past, but now spoken out indeed; the Message which the Lord of Ages, choosing His hour aright, now imperially commands to be announced to the Nations, that they may submit to it and live. It is the vast fulfilment of those mysterious Scriptures which are now the credentials, and the watchword, of its preachers. It is the supreme expression of the sole and eternal Wisdom; clear to the intellect of the heaven-taught child; more unfathomable, even to the heavenly watchers, than Creation itself. To the God of this Gospel he must now entrust the Romans, in the glowing words in which he worships Him through the Son in whom He is seen and praised. To this God-while the very language is broken by its own force-he must give glory everlasting, for His Gospel, and for Himself.

He takes the papers, and the pen. With dim eyes, and in large, laborious letters, and forgetting at the close, in the intensity of his soul, to make perfect the grammatical connection, he inscribes, in the twilight, this most wonderful of Doxologies. Let us watch him to its close, and then in silence leave him before his Lord, and ours:

But to Him who is able to establish you, according to my Gospel, and the proclamation of, made by, Jesus Christ, true to (κατά) (the) unveiling of (the) Secret hushed in silence during ages of times, but manifested now, and through (the) prophetic Scriptures, according to the edict of the God of Ages, for faith’s obedience, published among all the Nations-to God Only Wise, through Jesus Christ-to whom be the glory unto the ages of the ages. Amen.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Romans 16". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/romans-16.html.
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